Teachers are often the first adults students turn to when struggling with mental health, but educators are not adequately trained to address the crises.
I love teaching writing; it’s where revelations happen, where children plumb the dark corners, nudge the sleeping dogs, and work out solutions to their most convoluted dilemmas. As much as I adore reading student work, I still get a little nervous about what I’ll find there. Among the stories of what my teenage students did last summer and what they want to be when they grow up are the more emotionally loaded accounts: firsts (periods, kisses, or failures), transitions (moves, their parents’ divorces, or custody disputes), and departures (dropouts, graduations, or suicide attempts).
Over the years, my students have entrusted me with their most harrowing moments: psychotic hallucinations, sexual molestation, physical abuse, substance abuse, HIV exposures, and all sorts of self-injurious behavior ranging from cutting to starvation to trichotillomania. When students write about delicate and dangerous experiences, there are decisions to be made and judgments to be called. And yet, for much of my career, I have been horribly unprepared and have failed to secure the services my students needed as a result.
Teachers routinely receive first-aid training in CPR, EpiPen use, and safe body fluid cleanup, but it’s rare for schools to offer training in mental health, said Todd Giszack, Academic Dean of Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Virginia. Recognizing that schools are responsible for their students’ mental, as well as physical health, Fork Union Military Academy designed and implemented its own curriculum with the help of two mental-health professionals, and now offers eight-hour certification programs in Mental Health First Aid. “It has taken two years, but nearly all of our faculty and staff has become certified in Mental Health First Aid. This has allowed our school community to become familiar with trends and warning signs associated with adolescent emotional and mental health” Giszack said.